Integration comes within the grief.
The small tabletop, eight Persian tiles assembled into a pattern of snaking navy blue vines on a background of pale blue edged along its long sides by two mahogany strips, sits on a luggage stand in front of the south-facing bay window. It is flanked by large arm chairs where my parents spent most waking hours in the past ten years. The table held a succession of mugs for my mother and, for my father, mismatched, chipped cup-and-saucers, and little gilt-rimmed Victorian plates of crusty white breakfast biscuits. A pencil or two hid under a ragged stack of Christian Science Monitors, appeals for money, opened bills which my mother, the household bookkeeper, began stuffing into the seat of her capacious chair, and my father’s manila folder of hand-written pages which he bent intently over but was interrupted by regular digressive comments from my mother who, flipping pages of seed catalogues, shared wisps of thought or desire with him, or anyone, but he was there. “It would be nice to have this awning out back.”
I have been gradually upgrading the living room without altering its arrangement: replacing ‘less than’ rugs with my far better choices; out with the ratty, cramped love seat and in with an expansive couch on which you can nap. My comfy chairs take over for the inherited wing chairs which are so solid they will never die but which force you to sit up straight. The living room looks and feels much better without having lost its charm. In the course of this redecoration, I have vacuumed and dusted and taken damp sponges to surfaces and corners that haven’t seen light in 20 years. (Twenty years of Cape Cod’s dirt, a dusty salty gray build-up is equivalent to one year of NYC’s charcoal grime.)
I scrub as a way to calm down, a way to let go—a scrubbing go. When sad or worried, I make a small pilgrimage around the room, praying with my dust rag at the bookcase, now the window sill, the mantlepiece. Rather than adding totems and dripping more wax, my prayers involve de-accumulations. I disturb the quiet smoke caught under the mantlepiece. I swab away dust mite colonies or mildew that hardens in the winter stillness but slowly expands its dark rash along the baseboards in muggy summer. These populations of tiny creatures have been part of the house’s comforting antique scent.
This morning, in a mindless fervor, I push my current reading stack to one side of the table and sponge off the dimming film. The tiles shine. They are lovely. For some reason I don’t clean the other side but later, sitting beside the books, I push them over. On this unwashed side, I see a faint ring left by my father’s coffee cup. I feel he might come into the room any moment, sit and talk with me, his cup poised on his knee before plinking it onto the table. His perspective is in the unwashed spills. He calmly accepted nature as it invaded the house—the mice, the mildew, the mites—while my mother constantly, though less constantly in recent years, scrubbed against these intruders. She was cluttered but clean; he was orderly but not fastidious. Together they kept the house clean enough, orderly enough.
Cleaning is virtuous. That’s my inner script. I think of myself as a not-very-materialistic person who creates space and practices ‘letting go’ in order to be unattached and to open newly. But right at this moment I pause. Do I imagine that by ‘letting go’—a virtue for any spiritual seeker—plays neatly into my old crooked ways of being a perfect and good girl who neatens and cleans her world as penance for not being able to take away the mysterious anguish in her father’s soul, an anguish expressed in nightly drinking that erased his kindness until he flung bombast and insult, am I imagining that this ‘letting go’ by way of scrubbing my world clean will free me from that pain?
I forced together ‘cleaning’ and ‘letting go’, as if they are causal or the same thing. Cleaning leads to letting go. Once it is gone it is done. I am free. In my heart I know this is not true. We all make such specious bargains within our souls. Little short cuts to escape. Cleaning is not always right, this erasure. It’s true that I want to hurry the integration of my large life changes. Scrub and scrub. But…one sure thing about spiritual seeking is that no action or observable rule is always right. What matters is awareness within the action. ‘Letting go’ this morning could mean letting it be.
My eyes fix on the stained blue tiles. What I see bores in, cutting across scar tissue until fluids and feelings commingle. In childhood I wanted to be regarded and attended to by my father at all times. Right now even the child in me is capable of understanding that my father had his own pain and that he had a right to his own pain and a right to find solace or solutions to that pain. Even the child in me is capable of knowing the rightness for any person, even a father, to have their own inner world despite being a parent. Parenthood should not mean losing one’s soul and all its dimensions to the servitude of caregiving.
Our three months climbing the mountain of death has changed me. I was finally loved enough, and I loved more than I knew I could. Shorn of the haste and confusion of words, his asked my forgiveness which I gave before he asked. He did his best as father. And I grew up. What better outcome can we all wish for? Dad and I lived at last in rampant joy, free from our lifelong tangle of expectation and remiss.
Suddenly I know my integration circles the coffee ring on the table. I leave the reminder as is.
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